On 14 March 2022, the Global Justice Academy hosted a conversation between Mohamedou Ould Salhi, author of the best-seller Guantánamo Diary, and Dr Kasey McCall-Smith, director of the Global Justice Academy. The event was part of Mohamedou’s United Kingdom tour to talk about his experiences and what happens in the aftermath of torture and arbitrary detention. In the conversation, Mohamedou and Dr McCall-Smith, together with the audience’s participation, reflected on the post-9/11 human rights legal and political landscape.
Mohamedou was born in Mauritania, and as a young man studied and worked in Germany and Canada before moving back to Mauritania in 2000. Between 2000 and 2001, he was three times detained at the behest of the United States, questioned about the so-called “Millennium Plot”, and later released. However, in November 2001, Mohamedou was arbitrarily arrested in Mauritania, later transferred to Jordan and then Guantánamo Bay. Mohamedou eventually spent 15 years arbitrarily detained and was subjected to multiple forms of torture and ill-treatment under the ‘enhanced interrogation programme’. He was ultimately released without any charge or any form of redress by the US.
In his best-selling book, Guantánamo Diary, Mohamedou tells a Mauritanian proverb about a man who was afraid of a rooster. As the story goes, a psychiatrist asks this man why he is afraid of a rooster, an animal considerably smaller than human beings. The man replies that the rooster thinks he is corn. The psychiatrist says that the man is not corn, but a man indeed, so he should not be afraid of the rooster. Then, the man answers that he knows he is not a corn, but the rooster does not, which is why he is afraid. Unfortunately, this is the allegoric story about the many US ‘War on Terror’ detainees. Mohamedou and many other detainees tried for years to convince the US government that they were not terrorists just because they filled the ‘terrorist boxes’. In other words, they tried to convince the rooster they were not corn. Without access to fundamental human rights it was an almost insumountable task.
The event’s central theme was the conflict between national security and human rights. Through the ‘War on Terror’, led by the US after the events of 9/11, many men were arbitrarily incarcerated and tortured in order to gather information with the aim of protecting national security. These arbitrarily detained men, most of them Muslim, were deprived of their basic human rights, including the prohibition of torture and access to justice. The post-9/11 era is marked by states’ overwhelming concern for national security over human rights. Consequently, people are subjected to many forms of human rights infringements. Such abuses vary significantly from the most imperceptible and sometimes even consented breaches, such as infringements to the right to privacy and or access information, to the most gruesome violations as experienced and narrated by Mohamedou, including torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest, inaccessibility to justice, and presumption of guilt instead of innocence.
One of the most shocking observations Mohamedou shared was the absence of justice and the rule of law in Guantánamo Bay. After years of being incarcerated without criminal charge or prosecution, Mohamedou petitioned for habeas corpus and was granted a release order in 2010. However, Mohamedou was only released in 2016. The six-year gap between the court order and its compliance is the result of the US judicial system’s lack of power in the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities. Although judges may grant habeas corpus orders, the judicial system does not have the power to enforce them. According to Dr McCall-Smith, the unreasonable amount of time it took for Mohamedou’s release indicates the disconnect between the US justice system and the organs that wield power in the context of national security. Even after his release, Mohamedou still faces the shadows of his arbitrary detention as the US keeps him blacklisted.
Guantánamo Bay must be closed.
In closing the event, Mohamedou and McCall-Smith discussed possible ways to move forward after the horrifying human rights violations perpetrated in the ‘War on Terror’. First, McCall-Smith and Mohamedou agreed that Guantánamo Bay must be closed. Of the 780 men detained in Guantánamo Bay, 38 men are currently imprisoned there, and less than 20 men have been charged with a crime, let alone convicted. The Obama administration promised to close Guantánamo, but only the US Congress has the power to do so. Thus, in this particular situation, McCall-Smith pointed out that the US ‘checks and balances’ system worked against the rule of law. Second, Mohamedou highlighted the necessity to hold accountable those who violated international law and the prohibition on torture. Without accountability, there is no possibility of democracy as the people become powerless in the face of the government. Finally, Mohamedou stressed the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation through actions. More than a beautiful thought, this idea entails states’ responsibility to reflect and reconsider the undermining of human rights as the formula to guarantee national security. Mohamedou’s experiences and scholarly debates have both shown that the suppression and outright violation of human rights has not guaranteed the security of peoples or states.
The recording of the event can be viewed here.
This post is authored by Helena de Oliveira Augusto. Helena is currently undertaking the Human Rights LLM at the University of Edinburgh. Helena is from Brazil, where she completed a Bachelor of Laws degree at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.